Two Cheers For The Reformation … Well … Sorta … Kinda … Part II

From Part I:  So why and how did the warring parties finally settle the internecine dispute? Why is Europe not still being ravaged by sectarian warfare? Two-part answer:  (1) in places it is, e.g., the Balkan War, northern Ireland, et al.; (2) see Part II next week.

Beginning around 1500 – we might not-quite-arbitrarily want to start with Columbus’s discovery of the New World in 1492 ... or maybe the invention of the printing press in the 1450s – two things began to occur in parallel with the raging religious war that was consuming the European Continent:  (a) the rise of science, and (b) the rediscovery and rejuvenation of the faculty of Reason in human beings. The combination of (a) and (b) led over time to that great efflorescence of autonomy and intellect that came to be known as the European Enlightenment.

I have already written extensively about both developments (a) and (b) in my few-years-ago e-course on the origin, history, and development of the US Constitution. In particular, I wrote about the European Enlightenment in a separate installment of the e-course.  So rather than reinvent the wheel and rehearse all that, I will simply refer you to that link of my e-course, and to subsequent installments of that e-course on the Declaration of Independence, the US Constitution, and the First Amendment.

Instead of concentrating on the history of the Enlightenment itself and its impact on the origin, framing, and development of the founding Documents of the American Republic, I want instead in Part II to reference that background as context to discuss the problematic of Protestantism, especially conservative / evangelical / Reformed Protestantism, on American social and political life – again, not with a view toward advocating one such tradition over any other, but rather toward assessing how the incorrigibly sectarian character of post-Reformation, especially Reformed Protestant, Christianity affects what I will call the “misery index” of the ambient society. With conservative evangelical / Reformed Protestantism seemingly having returned to relevance, thanks to Trump and the Republican Party, from the political wilderness of post-Moral-Majority America, this seems to be a timely topic.

This language – the use of terminology like “problematic”, “misery index” and the like – may seem prejudicial.  Well … that is because such terminology is prejudicial and with good reason. For the response of very many Christians, especially conservative evangelical Protestant Christians, very strongly indicates that, while they and their churches are situated historically and culturally in a post-Reformation, pluralistic, 21st-century culture, they have in very many ways not (yet?) become acclimated to the implications of what such a sitz im Leben means, politically, culturally, and socially.  In their ongoing feuds with the political order, especially in the Age of Trump, they seem determined to pursue the kind of theocratic vision that was discredited in the mid-17th century and that historians may be forgiven for believing was settled by either the Peace of Augsburg in 1555 or the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648. But today’s conservative evangelical Christians seem determined to re-fight the Thirty Years War. That does not bode well for any classically liberal society, i.e., virtually all Western countries, and least of all the United States.

I deliberately say “re-fight the Thirty Years War” because, despite Reformed Protestantism’s renewed political and social relevance, the central issue of the Reformation has still not -- after 500 years -- been resolved:  the absence of authority and the resulting proliferation of Christian denominations, each with its own doctrinal code, each with its own reading of the Bible, each with its own theology, etc., etc. – and no means of deciding, least of all on the basis of  the Bible Protestants profess to revere, which ones are correct and which are in error. Here is the stinging irony of Protestant Christianity:  especially among conservative Reformed Protestants, one of the perennial complaints about contemporary classical-liberal, "Enlightenment-centric" culture is a climate of moral and epistemological relativism due to the lack of -- this is an oft-recurring phrase in their critique -- "a lack of objective standards". Yet the Protestant movement itself, which in 500 years resulted in (by some estimates, e.g., the Pew Forum) no fewer than 40 thousand Christian denominations, is the very historical epitome of the lack of "objective standards", because the early Reformers, beginning with Martin Luther, rejected the "objective standard" of the Catholic Magisterium. The fact that the Magisterium was Catholic is irrelevant. The point is that, be it Catholic, Presbyterian, Anabaptist, or Reform Druid, the Magisterium was an "objective standard", so the early Protestants rejected the very "objective standard" for whose absence they now excoriate Western culture. One is reminded of the cliched old chestnut about the boy who murdered his parents, then threw himself on the mercy of the court because he was an orphan.

And speaking of denominations, estimates vary of the sheer number of Christian – including Catholic – denominations. The Dictionary of Christianity in America, published by Inter-Varsity Press, states that As of 1980 David B. Barrett identified 20,800 Christian denominations worldwide.  Other estimates vary, some as high as 40,000.  E.g., the 1982 edition of the Oxford World Christian Encyclopedia projected that by 1985, there would be a total of 22,190 Christian denominations, a rate of increase of 270 denominations each year:  five new Christian denominations each week. Such variation of estimates of the number of denominations is to be expected, largely due to different definitions of the term “denomination,” e.g., counting American Baptists, Free-Will Baptists, Southern Baptists, etc., as different denominations, vs. lumping all Baptists as a single “denomination”.  In any case, to see why I do not hesitate to use prejudicial terminology like “problematic”, just reflect:  what if the interpretation of laws governing, e.g., freedom of the press, rights of defendants in criminal trials, interstate commerce, separation of powers, etc., were similarly variable?  Suppose there were 20,800 or 22,190 or 40,000 mutually conflicting interpretations of the US Constitution.  The doctrine of judicial review and the Marbury v. Madison decision should be looking awfully good right about now.

Interestingly enough, there was a time, pre-Marbury and pre-1803, when it was quite seriously proposed that each of the three Branches of the Federal government -- Executive, Legislative, and Judicial -- operate according to its own Branch-specific interpretation of the Constitution:  one interpretation for the President; one for the Congress; one for the Judiciary. It was even proposed that each State adopt its own interpretation of the Document. (This was what was behind John C. Calhoun's doctrines of "nullification" and "concurrent majority".) This was the "Protestant" vision of the way to interpret the US Constitution. We can be thankful, for the sake of the Nation, that in 1803 the Marshall Court tilted the balance back toward a more "Catholic" -- in the sense of "universal" (from the Greek phrase kata holon:  "according to the whole") -- interpretation. (In fact, I think someday I am going to write a book arguing that the last great religious war in Western civilization was the American Civil War, and for that very reason!) The reason Marbury is critical to the history of the Nation is that the doctrine of judicial review swam against the current of European religious history and basically re-established a civil magisterium (the Supreme Court) as an interpretive standard for understanding the US Constitution, something the West had not had vis a vis the Bible for roughly 250 years by the time the Marshall Court ruled on Marbury, et al's petition. Imagine how much less blood would have stained the soil of Europe, had a Catholic version of Martin Luther appeared on the scene sometime in the 1500s and restored the magisterial authority of the Church. What the Marshall Court did was the civil equivalent, notwithstanding that the South rejected the effort, which precipitated the Civil War.

Of course, there is one salient difference between different interpretations of the Bible and different interpretations of the Constitution:  unlike the American Republic, there is no single, unified “household of faith,” all of whose constituent members are obligated to defer to the same set of rules and practices.  Nor has there ever been such unity since at least 1517. E.g., under the terms of Windsor and Obergefell, all States of the Union are constitutionally obligated, on “free exercise” and “due process” grounds, to grant legitimacy to civil marriage between members of the same sex, whereas some churches grant sacramental status to same-sex marriage and others do not, depending on those churches’ theological principles and their respective interpretations of the Bible. And that is precisely the crux of the matter. Which begs the question:  How do you react to that lack of authority? The Framers of the Constitution reacted to it by explicitly assigning all religious creeds and groups equal status under the civil law:  the “establishment” and “free exercises” clauses of the First Amendment. In other words, religious groups agree to disagree.

The problem – and the reason Reformed Protestantism has again become relevant politically and socially – is that substantial numbers of members of that Christian tradition, breaking from that First Amendment / “agree-to-disagree” consensus, seek to access political power and enforce a fake unity onto the American Republic by recourse to the civil law. One wonders if people like the late Francis Schaeffer, Betsy DeVos, Franklin Graham, Jerry Falwell, Jr., et al. have ever so much as touched a book on 16th- and 17th-century European history. If they had, they would be struck, just as I am struck, by the eerie similarity of the kind of society-wide coercion they propose with the same kind of coercion that soaked Europe in blood for 2 centuries:  the lack of a common criterion of truth leading to settling disputes by naked force.

Admittedly, the following is anecdotal, but the following has occurred so often and so consistently that I am impelled to believe that it is more than merely anecdotal.  Every time I encounter or correspond with a conservative evangelical or Reformed Christian who advocates returning America to “biblical principles,” a la the late Francis Schaeffer in A Christian Manifesto, I point out, first, that there are a few-dozen thousand Christian denominations comprising Christianity worldwide, and consequently I ask my interlocutor, secondly, which of those 20K or 30K or 40K versions of the Bible should form the foundation of civil law, once the Republic has been placed on a biblical basis? The question always – I have never seen an exception – elicits a self-deprecatory, toe-scuffing smile followed by the assurance “Oh, we will just use the basic doctrines of Christianity”. If I am feeling especially brave -- arguably foolhardy -- on the occasion of such a conversation, I press the issue and point out that the Reformers themselves rejected any authoritative standard for evaluating which doctrines are "basic" and which are "optional"! (Of course, St. Augustine made the same distinction between essential and optional [his term was adiaphora], but in St. Augustine's day, there was a single authoritative standard for truth and orthodoxy:  the same magisterium the Reformers abolished.) Absent such a standard, we are only left with fortuitous agreement, which is hardly authoritative.

At this point, I always become cautious about pursuing the conversation further, because, from previous experience, I know the conversation will quickly become heated if I point out that, in those 20K or 30K or 40K doctrinal codes, one of the points of disagreement is precisely which doctrines are essential and which are optional (adiaphora, as St. Augustine said).  The lack of consensus on such a fundamental question is precisely what precipitated the Protestant Reformation in the first place. Ignore this brute "fact on the ground," and you will always end up trying to put the toothpaste back in the tube, trying to un-ring the bell. That is precisely what all the fighting was about.  (Try to imagine the North and the Confederacy trying to reconcile on the basis of what is "essential" in the US Constitution, i.e., the very issue they were fighting about.) To be fair, very many left-of-center Protestants do recognize this. They get it. They see the "establishment" and "free exercise" clauses of the First Amendment as their friend:  Mr. Jefferson's "wall of separation" protects the Church from the State at least as much as the other way around. But that so many conservative Reformed Protestants evidently do not recognize this supports my strong and indelible impression of historical illiteracy.

So … what is the bottom line … do we / should we celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation or not?  My honest answer:  it all dependsWilliam Blake once said “If the fool persists in his folly, he would become wise”. If the “folly” of Western civilization consisted of practicing religious violence for 200 years so as to exhaust itself, and thereby become wise enough in its prostration to agree to disagree – and to codify this disagreement explicitly in, e.g., the US Constitution and the First Amendment, then … yes … the Protestant Reformation should be celebrated. Think of it as life-saving surgery, albeit without anaesthetic.  Had the Reformation not occurred, we might well today be fighting religious wars with nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons.  (The Muslim world never did experience a Muslim version of the Reformation and a subsequent Islamic Enlightenment, culminating in a Muslim equivalent of the First Amendment. So the Muslim world may yet fight such a religious war.) But if the Reformation consisted of concatenated slaughter in pursuit of an already-discredited vision of religious and social unanimity to be achieved coercively at any and all cost, then, in that case, the relevant quote is not from William Blake, but from G. W. F. Hegel:  “The only thing we learn from history is that we learn nothing from history”.

James R. Cowles

Image credits

"God's Word Against Human Tradition" ... John Foxe, 1576 ... Public domain
Luther and the 95 Theses ... Ferdinand Pauwels 1830–1904 ... Public domain
Preamble to Constitution ... ... Public domain
God the Geometer ... Anonymous, 13th century ... Public domain

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